What’s the Story #66

"Real life can be as scary as any monster story"

Of the more than one dozen books I have researched and written, the project that made the biggest impact on me, personally, took place over a six-year period beginning in the mid-1980s, during which I immersed myself in the world’s largest organ transplant center. This was early on, long before transplantation had become the accepted “miracle” procedure it is today.

Back then, the mere idea of swapping body parts was anathema on religious, cultural, moral, ethical, and scientific grounds; everyone had an objection. There were even some critics who argued that those few pioneer surgeons who persisted—in the face of criticism and literal excommunication—were desecrating the human body and creating monsters, alien creatures that would somehow disrupt the world order, whatever that was. Even Louis Washkansky—the recipient of the world’s first successful human-to-human heart transplant, performed in South Africa by Christiaan Barnard in 1967—added to the eeriness and mystique during his first live interview, calling himself the “new Frankenstein.”

Washkansky was joking, of course. He was damn happy to be alive (although he only lived for eighteen days), as were the other recipients I came into contact with decades later during my research and immersion—folks on the edge of death who had, at the last minute, received hearts, livers, lungs, and even heart-lung blocks. Some of them, though certainly not all, were able to resume a semblance of a normal life. They didn’t mind being called Frankensteins. In fact, they often traded “monster” barbs at one another, as they walked out of the hospital in bodies that somehow, amazingly, thanks to science and the courage of their surgeons, functioned.

Washkansky, it’s worth noting, confused the characters in the Frankenstein tale: people sometimes forget that Frankenstein was the doctor—not the frightening creature he pieced together from the body parts of corpses. There’s also a common tendency to think of the monster as portrayed by Boris Karloff in the 1931 film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s book, but that grunting, ghoulish character does a great disservice to the original story in many ways.

Mary Shelley actually wrote the first draft of Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus when she was only eighteen years old, as part of a dare among friends—a diversion during a frigid and stormy summer vacation on Lake Geneva in 1818. Who would have guessed, then, that her book, written so spontaneously, would provide an enduring myth that even today shapes how our culture grapples with the consequences—intended or not—of creativity, science, and technology. Frankenstein is a terrific example of how literature can foster and solidify intellectual avenues far beyond a writer’s intention or vision. And now, at its 200th anniversary, the book is the inspiration for one of the most significant science-and-literature events in U.S. history.

The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project, supported by the National Science Foundation, is a global celebration launched and coordinated by Arizona State University. The project encompasses a wide variety of public programs, physical and digital exhibits, research projects, festivals, and many information-learning opportunities—all exploring the novel’s colossal impact on our culture. One part of the project, a fiction dare, has resulted in a collection of stories that will be published by Columbia University Press this spring. MIT Press has already published a new version of the original Frankenstein manuscript, “meticulously line-edited and amended,” according to the New York Review of Books, “with annotations and essays by leading scholars exploring the social and ethical aspects of scientific creativity raised by this remarkable story.” The print edition will be made into a digital edition, funded by the Sloan Foundation and in collaboration with MIT Press and the MIT Media Lab.

Finally, the project includes this issue of Creative Nonfiction. Almost two years ago, we dared writers—as Mary Shelley was dared—to send original and groundbreaking stories in the spirit of Frankenstein—but nonfiction. We received more than two hundred submissions exploring human efforts to control nature, the evolving relationships between humanity and technology, and what “monstrosity” means in the modern world. The seven essays collected in this issue approach these life-and-death questions from a variety of angles, though you’ll note the majority of them involve babies in some way.

Recently, in the New Yorker, the historian Jill Lepore took a fresh look at Mary Shelley and her book, reminding us that at the time of the original writing, Shelley (whose own mother died shortly after giving birth to her) had already lost one baby in infancy and was likely nursing her second; by the time she finished the book, she was pregnant for the third time. Lepore argues that to consider Frankenstein, as some critics do, only as a cautionary tale about science and technology is to strip out “nearly all the sex and birth, everything female.”

This issue of Creative Nonfiction certainly includes the female perspective; in fact, all of the essays collected here are by women. This wasn’t our goal, but perhaps it also isn’t surprising; for as much as we have become comfortable talking about scientists and tech geeks as “creators,” birthing babies remains the most fundamental act of human creation. And yet, it’s also true that in our times, human reproduction intersects with technology in ways that would have been unimaginable even to Mary Shelley.

The Frankenstein Bicentennial Project generously supported a $10,000 prize for best essay, awarded to Margaret Wardlaw, a physician-writer. In “Monsters,” Wardlaw tells the haunting story of a night she spent consoling a baby born with a condition (as medical textbooks put it) “incompatible with life.” And yet, with considerable medical intervention, the baby has lived to be almost a year old. Removing the dying baby from her isolette and her tangle of tubes and wires, Wardlaw observes an irony: “In the midst of all this advancement, we have come to value technological innovation, and the prolongation of life through invasive medical technology, more than we value human compassion and kindness.” [You can read an interview with Wardlaw here.]

In other essays, writers grapple with life-and-death decisions involving pre- and neonatal surgeries, reflect on the experience of living on time borrowed with the help of a heart implant, and explore both the allures and hidden dangers of makeup. And there’s a truly horrifying story about a family doctor gone berserk—Pat Falk’s “Piecing It Together,” which won one of the two $2,500 runner-up prizes. (The other runner-up was Elizabeth Fortescue’s “Prometheus Unbound.”)

I’ll be honest: this issue is not for the faint of heart. But then, real life can be as scary as any monster story.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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